The head of state of the Federal Republic of Germany is the Federal President. He is elected by the Federal Convention, a constitutional body which convenes only for this purpose. It consists of the members of the Bundestag and an equal number of members elected by the state parliaments. Sometimes eminent persons who are not members of a state parliament are nominated for the Federal Convention. The Federal President is elected for a term of five years with the majority of votes in the Federal Convention. He may only be reelected once.
The Federal President represents the Federation in its international relations and concludes treaties with other states on its behalf. He also accredits and receives envoys, although foreign policy as such is the responsibility of the Federal Government.
The Federal President appoints and dismisses federal judges, federal civil servants and commissioned and non-commissioned officers of the armed forces. The President can pardon convicted criminals. He checks whether laws have come about by the proper constitutional procedure; they are subsequently promulgated in the Federal Law Gazette.
The German Bundestag is the parliamentary assembly representing the people of the Federal Republic of Germany. It is elected by the people every four years. It may only be dissolved prematurely under exceptional circumstances, the final decision lying with the Federal President. The Bundestag’s main functions are to pass laws, to elect the Federal Chancellor and to keep check on the government.
The Bundestag is the scene of parliamentary battles, especially over crucial foreign and domestic policy issues. It is in the parliamentary committees, whose meetings are not usually open to the public, that the extensive preparatory work for legislation is done. Here it is a question of harmonizing political intentions with the detailed knowledge provided by the experts. It is likewise in the committees that parliament scrutinizes and controls government activity. Otherwise it would not be possible to cope with the multitude of technical questions. The Bundestag’s committees correspond to the Federal Government’s departments and range from the Committee on Foreign Affairs and the Committee on Labour and Social Affairs to the Budget Committee. The latter is particularly important because it represents parliament’s control of the budget. Anyone may directly address requests and complaints to the Petitions Committee of the German Bundestag.
The Bundesrat represents the sixteen states and participates in the legislative process and administration of the Federation. In contrast to the senatorial system of federal states like the United States or Switzerland, the Bundesrat does not consist of elected representatives of the people but of members of the state governments or their representatives. Depending on the size of their population, the states have three, four, five or six votes which may only be cast as a block.
More than half of all bills require the formal approval of the Bundesrat, which means that they cannot pass into law against its will. This applies especially to bills that concern vital interests of the states, for instance their financial affairs or their administrative powers. No proposed amendments to the constitution can be adopted without the Bundesrat’s consent (two-thirds majority). In all other cases the Bundesrat only has a right of objection, but this can be overruled by the Bundestag. If the two houses of parliament cannot reach agreement a mediation committee composed of members of both chambers must be convened, which in most cases is able to work out a compromise.
The Federal Government, the Cabinet, consists of the Federal Chancellor, who is chairman of the Cabinet and head of government, and the federal ministers. The Chancellor alone chooses the ministers and proposes them to the Federal President for appointment or dismissal. He also determines the number of ministers and their responsibilities. Certain ministries are mentioned in the Basic Law: the Federal Foreign Office as well as the Federal Ministries of the Interior, Justice, Finance and Defence. Institution of the three latter ministries is a constitutional requirement. The Chancellor is in a strong position primarily due to the fact that it is he who lays down the guidelines of government policy. The federal ministers run their departments independently and on their own responsibility but within the framework of these guidelines. In a coalition government, the Chancellor must also take account of agreements reached with the other party in the coalition.
The Federal Constitutional Court in Karlsruhe is the guardian of the Basic Law. It takes action only when called upon. A catalog of types of proceedings stipulates when cases may be brought before the Court.
Every citizen has the right to file a constitutional complaint with the Federal Constitutional Court if he feels his basic rights have been violated by public authority. Before doing so, however, he must as a rule have exhausted all other legal remedies.